Between The Rock and a hard place


The border at La Linea de la Concepcion.


Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

GlobalPost senior correspondent Paul Ames traveled to Gibraltar to investigate how the standoff is affecting people on both sides of the border. Read his report from Gibraltar here.

LA LINEA DE LA CONCEPCION, Spain — After almost three hours under a baking Mediterranean sun, tempers begin to fray along the line of cars stretching around the bay from the crossing into Gibraltar, the British territory at the end of the Iberian Peninsula.

A cacophony of horns jars the nerves. A fist-fight flares between two young men who had been lounging beside their vehicles.

Further down the line, a stocky, grey-haired Spanish woman in a brightly flowered dress climbs out of her family's Renault to harangue the crowd.

"This is a shame on Spain!" she cries, hands clenched in rage. "They are stopping honest people getting to work. If the Spanish had any cojones, we wouln’t stand for this."

The people of La Linea de la Concepcion are bearing the brunt of a renewed dispute between Gibraltar and the Spanish government, which has imposed rigorous police controls that have disrupted the flow of traffic across the border.

The Spanish authorities imposed the current measures after Gibraltar created an artificial reef by sinking concrete blocks off the coast. Madrid says they are disrupting Spanish fishing boats — and that it’s concerned about smuggling and the environmental risks of Gibraltar's lucrative maritime refueling business.

Insults have flown, and on Monday British warships docked in Gibraltar. The European Commission weighed in the same day, saying it would send inspectors and warning Madrid not to escalate tensions by making good on a threat to charge the equivalent of $67 for crossing into Gibraltar.

Arguments for the hard-line tactics are lost on many of the more than 6,000 people from La Linea who cross the frontier every day to work in the British territory. Many more depend on trade from customers on the other side.

Since Madrid introduced the border slowdown earlier this month, workers, shoppers and tourists seeking to cross by car have faced delays of up to seven hours.

"I don't care about the politics, I just want to get to my job," said one woman stuck in the line. "They have to let people work. I'm a cleaner and I work in the house of an elderly lady over there, I look after her, she'll be worried without me."

Like many, she spoke on condition of anonymity because of concern the publication of her name could lead to problems at the border.

Jobs in Gibraltar are vital for many residents of a city where the problems gripping much of Spain are writ large. Home to 65,000 people squeezed onto a mile-wide neck of land connecting Gibraltar to the mainland, La Linea is blighted by unemployment running to more than 45 percent.

That compares to Spain's national average of 26 percent, which already rivals Greece as the highest in Europe.

Years of over-spending have build up a debt that's left the city close to bankruptcy. Citizens accuse local politicians of corruption.

Outside the city, the coastal highway heading east to the regional airport at Malaga sweeps past abandoned, half-finished apartment blocks and villa developments that stand as forlorn monuments to the housing bubble that has saddled the Spanish economy with more than a million unsold homes.

La Linea elected 34-year-old Gemma Araujo Morales, its first women mayor, in 2011 to sort out the mess. But the border dispute is undermining her efforts to inject new life into the local economy.

"This queue policy, this slowdown on the border is harming Spaniards, it's harming our workers, who have to wait for hours to get to their jobs, or to get back home to their families after a hard day's work," the Socialist mayor — whose party is in opposition to the conservative government in Madrid — said in an interview in her city hall office.

Local tradesmen say they’ll have to lay off workers if the border slowdown continues. Some fear a repeat of the crisis that followed the decision by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to shut down the frontier completely in 1969.

It stayed shut for 13 years. The many mixed families who wanted to visit relatives on the other side had to travel via the Moroccan port of Tangier around 20 miles to the south over the Straits of Gibraltar.

Araujo Morales says La Linea lost 50 percent of its population during the closure as people were forced to seek work elsewhere.

These days, the scars of economic decline are clearly visible to anyone crossing the border from Gibraltar. Bored-looking youths cluster on the trash-strewn lawns surrounding the housing blocks overlooking the frontier.

The path into central La Linea runs past a row of boarded up Asian restaurants and the glassless skeletons of unfinished stores.

Despite the hard times, downtown La Linea is a vibrant place. Lively sidewalk cafes neighbor restaurants serving freshly caught seafood in a city that boasts a flamenco music heritage and 10 miles of sandy Mediterranean beaches.

All of which make it an attractive destination for Gibraltarians and tourists who fly into the enclave's airport from London, Birmingham or Manchester — provided the border traffic is flowing freely.

Araujo Morales says the government in Madrid must understand her town's situation and look to other ways to solve its issues with London and the Gibraltarian authorities.

"I don't understand why the Spanish government isn't working through dialogue, why they’re not using the established diplomatic lines within the European Union to resolve these problems," she said.

"I want to maintain good, neighborly relations with Gibraltar,” she added. “I don't get into sovereignty issues, that's for the Foreign Ministry, but I'm here to defend the interests of the people in La Linea. As mayor, I cannot support measures that are harming our people here."

Many Spaniards regard Britain's 300-year rule over The Rock as an historical affront. Spain claims genuine grievances over the use of the territory use by smugglers and tax evaders. Local ecologists complain Gibraltar's growing role as a refueling center for shipping risks grave environmental damage.

La Linea fisherman say the recent decision by Her Majesty's Government of Gibraltar to create the artificial reef in the Bay of Algeciras will harm their traditional, small scale fishing. They sailed into waters contested by the two sides on Sunday to protest.

However, many in Spain say the dispute’s timing and government's noisy response is a smokescreen designed to distract attention from the country's economic woes and widening corruption allegations linking Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and other leading members of the ruling Popular Party to a slush fund fed by property magnates.

The Gibraltar issue has knocked the scandal off front pages and given the conservative press in Madrid an opportunity to appeal to patriotic unity. Headlines dominating the front page of the daily ABC in recent days have included: "Gibraltar Swindles Spain" and "Cameron threatens Spain."

However, analysts warn Rajoy is taking a big chance confronting the British.

"This could backfire," says Alejandro Baron, a researcher at Madrid’s FRIDE think-tank. "It's risky, even if it can buy him some time internally... and the situation could worsen for Rajoy if Spain doesn’t win any concessions."

More from GlobalPost: Gibraltar: The Rock refuses to roll

The leader of the Socialist opposition, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, has offered the government support over the Gibraltar dispute "as a matter of state." But he’s also urged dialogue over confrontation and warned against "adventures that can make us look ridiculous."

Separatists in Spain's northeastern Catalonia region have expressed support for the Gibraltarians in the face of "bullying and harassment" from Madrid.

Back in La Linea, despite anger with Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo for provoking the fishing dispute, residents express little sympathy for Madrid’s tough line.

"This government has screwed things up, they don't know how to negotiate," complains pensioner Miguel Garcia after waiting more than two hours to cross into Gibraltar.

"They’re like Franco. With all the economic problems we have, all they can think of is to f**k people over when they are trying to get to the only place around here that's offering any work.”